The Difference of a Medium

Gilliam Blue

(Top) Sam Francis, Blue, 1958. Oil on canvas, 48 1/4 x 34 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1958 © 2009 Samuel L. Francis Foundation, California/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY (Bottom) Sam Francis (1923-1994), Speck, 1971. Lithograph in colours, on wove paper, 864 x 1175 mm, Image courtesy Christie’s

Do you ever consider the medium behind a work of art? Does the question of how artists are able to retain such a consistent style across so many different techniques ever cross your mind?

During my first week at the Phillips, I attended a Spotlight Talk where we discussed abstract works in the collection. Walking around the second floor galleries, I was drawn to a canvas covered in blue. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember the artist or title right away. As I walked closer, I saw that it was a painting by abstract expressionist Sam Francis. I knew I had seen his work before, but it took me a few minutes to figure out where and when. Soon after, I realized it was over the summer during my time at Christie’s, where I interned in the Prints & Multiples department. We sold a bunch of color lithographs by Francis; these prints were some of my favorites from the sale, just as Blue is one of my favorite paintings in The Phillips Collection. Comparing Francis’s oil painting to the lithographs I’d interacted with several months before made me reflect on the difference of a medium. How is it that Blue can evoke the same aesthetic feeling as do other works made of an entirely different material and by a completely different process?

Despite the relatively spontaneous application of the oil painting process compared with the step-by-step, planned process of printmaking, the mediums of painting and lithography create a similar style in Francis’s work. Falling somewhere between the aggressive strokes of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and the tranquil fields of color by Mark Rothko, Francis’s large-scale works allow the viewer to escape in the washes and drips of paint or ink. When I look at Blue, I feel the same sense of calm that comes over me in The Rothko Room combined with the excitement of Pollock’s action paintings. And just like Blue, the Francis lithographs that Christie’s sold this past summer evoked the same kind of feeling. With even more blank white surface, his lithograph Speck similarly offers a chance for the viewer to get lost in the space between the splotches of vibrant color bleeding into one another.

Sam Francis’s work thus exemplifies how through different mediums, artists can retain a consistent style. Whether he was preparing a lithograph stone or a stretched canvas, the way that the artist applied color to a working surface throughout his career was truly unique. In each of his lithographs and paintings, Francis left his identifiable stamp of innovation.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Everyone’s In on the Action

(Left to right) Valerie Hellstein gives a tour ; Willem de Kooning,  Asheville, 1948, Oil and enamel on cardboard; 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in.; 64.92875 x 80.9625 cm.. Acquired 1952 ; Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952, Oil and charcoal on canvas; 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in.; 167.3225 x 121.6025 cm.. Acquired 1955.

(Left to right) Valerie Hellstein gives a tour ; Willem de Kooning, Asheville, 1948. Oil and enamel on cardboard, 25 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1952; Bradley Walker Tomlin, No. 8, 1952. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 65 7/8 x 47 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1955.

In Valerie Hellstein’s spotlight talk yesterday, about her installation of abstract expressionist works, she moved us past familiar thoughts about the actions of the artist (think Jackson Pollock dancing over his canvases) toward a focus on the actions of the viewer. Action painting requires action on the part of the viewer to really experience the work, she explained. We attend to the colors. We think about the depth of the paint and the forms on the canvas. Active looking is required to do more than just pass by the work with a glancing notice. And through our active looking, we become aware of our moment and our place in that moment, standing before the painting.

Unexpected Opportunity: Ab Ex on View

Valerie Hellstein in Gallery F. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Valerie Hellstein in Gallery F. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

One of the things that excited me about coming to the Phillips for the year was the opportunity to be in a museum setting again, to have art objects near by and all around. Knowing that my fellowship was a research and teaching opportunity, however, I did not expect to get first-hand experience working with the collection. I tentatively suggested the possibility of installing a few abstract expressionist works in a gallery, and the curators and staff were more than enthusiastic and supportive. Fortuitously, the small hang coincides with the newly opened exhibition Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet and shows how other artists in Pollock’s and Ossorio’s circle explored process and materiality as well as engaged themes of nature, landscape, and even spirituality.

What I found challenging and exciting about this small project is that many of the works I had hoped to choose were unavailable, but my disappointment was quickly mitigated by how well the group of paintings selected in the end works together. Seeing the affinities between Tomlin and Ippolito, Kline and Stamos, Siskind and de Kooning, is very exciting. Duncan Phillips felt that paintings could talk to each other and different pairings could teach us something new and unexpected. While it makes sense from a historical and social perspective to have these paintings in the same room, seeing the various combinations and affinities has made me look at the works in a new light. My scholarship tends toward intellectual and cultural history, and it is refreshing and important to be brought back to the physical works of art as I dive into writing my book manuscript.

Valerie Hellstein, Postdoctoral Fellow

Installation photos: Joshua Navarro

Installation photos: Joshua Navarro